Paul Brunton Philosophic Foundation homepage > Notebooks of Paul Brunton > Category 15 : The Orient > Chapter 6 : Islamic Cultures, Egypt

Islamic Cultures, Egypt

Islamic cultures

Allah Akabar! It is fit that a chapter written on the mysticism of lands which fly the Islamic Crescent and Star should call upon the name of the Compassionate, the Merciful, at the beginning of the work. Such is the custom of those lands; such shall be the custom of the present writer.

On the left there are tall graceful and tapering palmyra trees rising from a stretch of brown desert sand. From their heads there spread fans of drooping fronds, thin sharp-edged leaves, waving to and fro in the night wind.

The scene was animated enough. Camels, with their long high-held necks, their ungainly heads, their skirted, striding, aquiline-nosed drivers, were plentiful.

The contrast between loquacious Americans of the cities and silent Arabs of the desert is unforgettable. The Bedouin can sit in a group and say nothing at all for hours! The desert's peace has entered into them to such an extent that the social duty of laryngeal activity is unknown among them, and regarded as unnecessary!

I was deeply impressed by the intense fervour shown everywhere by the followers of the Prophet. Once at sundown I met a long line of camels making their slow heavy way across the Rajputana Desert. Suddenly the animals were halted and a drawn-out shrill cry filled the air. It was the familiar Muhammedan call to prayer. The riders leapt off their animals, the latter kneeling on their forelegs, and prostrated themselves on little rugs in silent worship. It was a picturesque and colourful scene--one that grips the memory.

The sight affected me. Three hundred earnest faces appeared in the mosque's dim light: three hundred pairs of eyes seeing naught but Allah.

We wandered into a little mosque. My companion bowed and prostrated himself in prayer, while I sat in reflective meditation upon the environing presence of Allah, the One.

Saracenic architecture has brought me many happy hours. How often have I been attracted by some mosque's tall tiered minarets gracefully tapering upwards and striking the eye with a pleasing effect! How instinctively have I moved towards the noble splendid and arched gateway, crowned with a graceful bulbous dome and leading into an enclosed garden! How satisfying has it been to tread the courtyard's oblong worn marble paving-slabs. How slowly have I paced the cypress-bordered walk by the fountain-fed short canal! How have I passed through open loggia and beneath the exquisite triple arches of the main pavilion itself to sit down finally and rest on the matted floor! How appreciatively have I gazed at the sumptuously carved window tracery in pierced stonework, at the fascinating symmetry of its geometrically patterned forms. How deep the joy I have derived from the beautiful characters of the Arab script in which the Prophet's supreme metaphysical declarations are painted on the walls! Everywhere perfect taste is displayed.

The curved arches and carved arabesques of Islam draw me more powerfully than its dogmas.

Islamic mosques are the most inspiring and beautiful buildings I know. They perfectly fulfil their function, drawing the heart by their exquisite charm and stilling the mind by their simplicity.

Our grey and wet Northern skies do not favour the open arcaded courtyards with the trickling fountains in the centre and little tubs of palm trees around, which I find so friendly in the Near East.

The beautiful Arabic architecture clearly derives its forms from tents, tentpoles, and curtains.

In the Persian valley of Mourg-Avo there stands an immense pile of ancient ruins in white marble. Among them is a profile of a winged, angelic figure with the following inscription: "I am God and here is none else. I am God and there is none like me."

As long ago as the sixteenth century, Abul Fazl, the son of a famous Sheikh and the friend of Emperor Akbar, could write: "My mind had no rest, and my soul felt itself drawn to the sages of Mongolia, or to the hermits of Lebanon; I longed for interviews with the Lamas of Tibet."

The Israelites, like the Muhammedans in their mosques, possess no picture, no statue, no figure of any kind in their temples to portray God.

The Allah whom Muhammedans worship is not a personal deity--at least not for the cultured classes. The term is a negative one. It signifies That which is not limited, formed, bounded, material, or phenomenal.

In the Arabic religious formula, "LA"=there is no God, "YLLA"=but God. The first part is negative but the second is positive.

Hardly any sculpture exists in Muhammedan religious or secular art. To reduce all risk of idol worship, Muhammed forbade all representation of living beings. Whereas the Hindus, the Greeks, and the Romans put their gods into stone, wood, metal, and paint, no follower of his was allowed to do so. That is, the Formless was not to be thought of as Formed.

Islam has its worshipped saints, its walis, despite the Koran's prohibition of such intermediaries between Allah and man.

"Allah is the Light," wrote Muhammed.

The Sufis were not allowed to describe their occult experiences; it was deemed better for truth, and especially for the subdual of egotism, to hide them.

The Sufi mystics put more interest into the quest of the Spirit's beauty than did other mystics.

Do not confound the mechanically aroused ecstasy of the Dervish with the thought-conquering concentration of the true Yogi. The first is on a lower level than the second.

Sufi terms: Enayat=Grace. Verd=repetitive mantram used by the Dervishes. Musharaf=To feel the presence of God as Grace.

The Sufi Arabic phrase for "in the world but not of it" is "halvat dar unjumen."

LIGHT. NUR (God's ecstasy-creating Light) is mentioned several times in Sufi sacred poems.

Majdhub = Dervish in ecstasy.

Barakah in Morocco and adjacent Muhammedan lands signifies "grace or blessing or healing power."

The mystical symbolism of the Sufis can be traced in Hafiz and Omar. Their wine equals aspiration, love of the divine. Beloved equals God. Drunkenness equals ecstatic meditation. Amorous glance equals devotion.

Three quotations from The Diwan by Nasir-I-Khusraw (eleventh-century Persian poet, traveller, and mystic):
1) Ere me from their earthly casings uncounted spirits have fled,
And I, though long I linger, may be counted already dead.

2) For Satan had caught and constrained me to walk in his captives' train,
      And 'twas Reason who came and saved me, and gave me freedom again.

3) My soul is higher than Fortune;
      then why should I Fortune fear?

Persian Sufi verse:

O ye who seek to solve the knot.

Ye live in truth, yet know it not.

Ye sit upon the river's brink,

Yet crave in vain a drop to drink.

Ye dwell beside a countless store,

Yet perish hungry at the door.

I wander and look for Thee

But Thou dost evade my eyes

By hiding Thyself in my heart.--Muhammedan medieval song>

"He is a man who dwells amongst mankind, marries, and associates with his fellow-creatures, yet is never for a single moment forgetful of God."--Abu Said, eleventh-century Persian mystic of high degree

After I read Ibn Tufail's The Awakening of the Soul my mind gravitated quite naturally to Eastern wisdom.

Ibn Tufail was not only a Sufi mystical master but also an intellectual thinker and an able physician. His little book, The Awakening of the Soul (original title Story of Hai Ebn Yokdan) was the first to lead me to the idea of meditation.

(1) "When it is time for stillness, stillness."--Dervish saying (2) "Essence manifests only in understanding."--Sufi saying

Sheikh Shihab ud Din, of Aleppo (twelfth century), was a Sufi who taught that the ultimate reality was Light (Nur). His heterodoxy caused him to be executed. This Light is self-existent, perpetually luminous, self-manifesting, and is the source of all existence. It has two expressions. The sheikh also taught in his writing that the path of spirituality had five stations: (1) selfishness, (2) self-centeredness, (3) "I am not," (4) "Thou God art," and (5) I am not and thou art not--the annihilation of distinctions of subject and object.

"So-named absorption in God, regarded as the goal of the Sufi seeker, is in fact only the beginning," warned Al Ghazzali, the Persian whose book, The Authority of Islam, was known and studied throughout Europe in the Middle Ages by Christians and Jews as well as his co-religionists, Mohammedans. He spent fourteen years investigating all available teachings during wide travels throughout Oriental lands; he went into the desert for solitary meditation for twelve years and is honoured as a great Master in those lands.

The Naqshbandi Order of dervishes was founded in the fourteenth century in Bukhara, and its chief centre was there until Bolshevism arose. Their great adept, the Mullah Nasrudin, is the origin of several mystic-philosophic tales which convey quite simply instruction on deep Vedantic truths. In the second story he says, "I never tell the truth!" The commentary explains: "If this is true, he lies. If untrue, he tells truth! Thus by words we can arrive anywhere, but this is not, never, truth." In the first tale the idea of cause and effect vanishes. In the third, the past and the future are already here, now. The Naqshbandis warn aspirants that self-deception is a common obstacle to finding and realizing truth. They further teach that to satisfy the intellect becomes impossible and explanation reaches a dead end; but it can be transcended and a mysterious plane of higher being attained through the experience of deep contemplation. The last tale may make you laugh. Nasrudin went into a shop. He asked, "Have you flour?" "Yes." "And have you milk, sugar, honey?" "Yes." "Then, for heaven's sake, why don't you make sweetmeats?"

The Sufis of Pakistan and the Naqshbandi dervishes of pre-Bolshevik Bukhara, but now elsewhere, use certain writings--stories of the adept Mullah Nasrudin--to instruct simple persons in subtle truths. They are "Vedanta made easy" tales.

If Buddhist monks in the Far East originally took tea to stay awake during long periods of meditation, pious Muhammedans originally took coffee to stay awake during the tedious periods of formal religious prayer.


We in the West have brought punctuality to perfection and developed business into a religion. We customarily--and from our standpoint rightly--despise the East for its light-hearted attitude towards these matters. We arrive at our business engagements with clocklike precision and involuntarily carry the same spirit into our social appointments, too. We work hard and well, and to relax when the mood prompts us is to yield to one of the seven deadly sins. Perhaps the only shining exceptions are to be found in bohemians and those in artistic circles, whose attitude was aptly and humourously put by Oscar Wilde into the mouth of one of his characters: "He was always late on principle, his principle being that punctuality is the thief of time." During my wanderings in the East I have not failed to note the difference of outlook, the easy-going attitude toward work and time, and though this at first excited my irritation, it now receives, within due limits, my approbation. For I, too, have felt the pleasure of taking life easily, the delight of ceasing to be pursued by old Kronos, the comfort of no longer reacting to clockwork and mechanical discipline. In Egypt I found this spirit at its apogee, and now it suits me well. Yet I hope I shall never succumb as far as that rotund Hindu Indian moneylender of Lahore, who boasted to me that when he had an appointment for ten o'clock in the morning he invariably turned up at two in the afternoon. I looked at him, shocked, and then reproached him for such inconsiderate conduct. "Oh, don't worry," he replied, "for even if I did turn up at ten my client would invariably turn up at two!" However, I mastered one lesson through my sojourn under the pleasant Egyptian sky, a lesson which has been well put by Rabelais, who said that the hours were made for man, and not man for the hours. It is not that I want to enter into a defense of unpunctuality--far from it--but that I want to enter into a defense of that inner personal freedom which can live in the Eternal Now, which can carry on its work and duties without being enslaved by them.

During the inundation of the Nile, many peasants dream away their time in shady spots and idly await the time when the land will again be accessible.

When the vivid colours of sunset went out of the Egyptian sky, I took up my station by the Nile bank and mentally went with them. The little self was left far behind as I passed into Nature's stillness.

The Egyptian sundown creates glorious chromatic appearances--orange, gold, yellow, pink, red, and other colours are painted on the scene in the quivering light.

In most Muhammedan countries, and certainly in the Egypt which I knew many years ago, lunatics were believed to have left their soul behind in the heaven world, so that their deserted bodies were bereft of the mind's guidance. They, and in particular mentally retarded idiots, were considered to be holy because of this connection with their praying or worshipping souls in heaven.

In the Egypt of those days--a tranquil amicable and attractive Egypt, before the furies of politics and the hates of war had entered in--I found some interesting natives uncommonly gifted with psychic powers or religious depth. There was the little old negress in whose presence logic lost its value, for she told me truths of my past and future, all true or fulfilled.

That was a beautiful sight, when the monthly visitation of the full moon's light fell upon the Sphinx's far-gazing eyes.

The Sphinx's mutilated noseless face, its lost desert privacy, show time's devastating hand.

The Sphinx bears the scars of having lived too long. The mutilated face has lost the beauty it once had. This is why it must be seen by moonlight, not in glaring sunlight.

Full moon is the best time to visit the Sphinx. It comes alive, speaks.

Is this the answer to the Sphinx's riddle, that man's consciousness comes from an unknowable Source? Or is it that this consciousness, freed from its animal inheritance and human confusions, is itself that Source? The initiate into the Egyptian Mysteries was given the answer.

The temple which still lies hidden under the Sphinx and the chamber which still remains undiscovered within the Great Pyramid were not cunningly sealed up by so secretive a tribe as the High Priests for nothing. For all those who are imprisoned in the fleshly body, they must serve only as sacred symbols; but for a few of us they mean more.

The Great Pyramid of Egypt was erected by survivors of Atlantis, as a symbolic building reminding us of the connection between wisdom and the earthly world. It was also a Temple of the Mysteries.

Egyptian kings had to undergo first instruction and then initiation before they could inherit, from the previous king, the title of divine personage. For the initiation, with its physical ritual and psychic reality, the Great Pyramid alone was reserved and built, as well as to stand for a symbol of these things. Professional Egyptologists reject these interpretations as being unscientific.

Although the Pyramid served so many different uses, physical and spiritual, there was also the geographical one wherein it served as a kind of map picturing the northern half of our globe. In this way its apex would be the North Pole and the perimeter would be the equator.

On that small platform which is the truncated top of the Great Pyramid, I once stood to look around at the charming long valley of the Nile, the pure blue sky, the groves of palm trees, the prolific fields, and then the endless yellow desert. After a while I squatted on the old flat stone, browned by time, and within minutes fell into a reverie. A message came.

It is quite possible that the flat top of the pyramid was used as a landing pad for space vessels. It is also possible that there were secret passages and chambers which led up to this pad and where the highest priests could meet their visitors from distant space.

It was a scientist named Alvarez who investigated the Great Pyramid with the use of cosmic ray instruments.

Amenophis IV, also called Akhnaten the Heretic, was the father of King Tutankhamen and also the husband of Queen Nefertiti. Akhnaten was a great mystic, a superb artist, a convinced pacifist, a noble idealist. Yet he was opposed, hated, defeated, and destroyed by the existing selfish, externalized and materialized, orthodox priestly leaders when he was only twenty-six years old. His ambition? To bring a new and better society.

The dust in Tutankhamen's tomb was poisonous. It is this which sickened and violently killed off those violators. There was no need for any psychic non-physical sorcerous force to be brought in.

It was not on Greek earth that Greek thought finally transcended itself, became mystical, and thus blossomed with its finest flowers. This happened on Egyptian earth, in the city of Alexandria, which was founded by a Greek, ruled for a period by half-Greeks, and associated with the best Hellenic culture. Here the Neoplatonic schools of philosophy and, later, the Christian theologies of Clement, Origen, Methodius, and other Fathers appeared. Here reasoned attitudes combined with inward experiences; here Europe and Asia and Africa combined their highest dreams and truths to produce the wisdom of Alexandria.

As a centre of Hellenic culture, Alexandria was larger and more active than Athens.

Ancient Alexandria kept its religious independence, kept religion but put it where it belonged. It honoured philosophy. That is why the ignorant rabble from the slums lynched Hypatia.

Alexandria was an extraordinary product of the creative imagination and far-sightedness of Alexander. In a short time it quite astonishingly became a world centre, a meeting-place of Africa, Asia, and Europe. It established several reputations, each along quite different lines. We know that all it was a centre of philosophy, erudition, and research--it was in fact the greatest cultural centre in the ancient world of its time. We do not all know that it became reputed also for its artists, its traders, and its manufacturers.

Alexandria, the quarrelsome city which mobbed and slew Hypatia, also produced celebrated Neoplatonists, talented Greek-speaking Christian Fathers, and gifted librarians who culled knowledge from several lands.

Alexandria, in Roman imperial days, became a great centre of commerce and crime, learning and sects, magnificent buildings and lowly slums, the noble Neoplatonic philosophy and the vile poisoner's art.

When Alexander started the building of Alexandria in 332 b.c., he opened the way for Zenodotus to open the doors of the celebrated library in 280 b.c.

This signet ring was made in Alexandria and bears on its face the head of the god Serapis, with his bent nose and curved helmet. It is interesting to speculate that when Alexandria flourished the sarcophagus of the city's founder, Alexander, was brought to the great temple there and that Serapis, to whom the temple was dedicated, was depicted with black pupils and a white iris gazing fixedly at the worshipper.

Stonehenge was built in relation to sun, moon, and eclipses. Babylon and Egypt also built temples on an astronomical basis.

The eye symbolized secrecy and occultism to the Egyptians of old. Hence its free use in their mystic chambers, paintings, and hieroglyphics.

The ancient Egyptian mystic hieratic posture was like an Indian's except that palms were lying flat upon the knees.

If we compare Hebrew with Egyptian texts the coincidence of whole sentences is startling.